The healthcare sector supports the entirety of society, from the NHS which offers free healthcare to all UK residents to private healthcare organisations. The reach is massive and this means it is not enough to simply clean up the mess after the damage from a cyber-attack has been done.

It no surprise that healthcare systems are becoming an increasingly popular target for cyber criminals and earlier this year, the government set out a strategy to protect the NHS from cyber-attacks. It highlighted the urgent need to take action and this was followed by the National Risk Register 2023 which outlined important areas of focus, including cyber security, health and social care systems..

The risk is imminent and it is not a case of if an attack will happen, but instead when it will happen with the recent HCS Healthcare attack as just one example. Given the nature of healthcare work, vast amounts of sensitive data are being stored and subsequently put at risk.

Additionally, we see massive complexity around devices, OS versions and combinations of apps on devices which further complicates an organisation’s ability to keep data secure. And so, it is only a matter of time until the next healthcare disruption takes place.

A resilient, zero-trust approach must now be the focus. While it is vitally important to protect devices and deter criminals, they are continuously refreshing their approach and if an attack were to be successful, organisations must be ready to react.

The digital world

The use of technology has dramatically increased over the past couple of decades and there is no sign of this slowing down, as emerging technologies such as AI take off, the world has become more digitally connected than ever before.

Within the healthcare sector, technology is also on the rise. Over 40 million people now have an NHS login as services are taken online to help book referrals and order medication while over 50 per cent of social care providers now use digital ways of recording and sharing information.

With all the benefits technology brings, the downfalls can have destructive effects.

The healthcare ecosystem is one that is extremely complex, consisting of entities that access, process, collect and store health information, from hospitals to clinics to health insurance providers.

As data is stored increasingly online keeping it safe, as it is shared from one location to the next, is not a straightforward task.

Cyber hygiene in healthcare

Cyber criminals are using increasingly sophisticated approaches to exploit information, and it is the job of healthcare providers and their IT teams to protect their patients’ data.

While it is not possible to guarantee a cyber-attack will not impact an organisation, taking steps to ensure a robust cyber strategy is in place, which means an organisation is prepared for an attack and can recover quickly, should be the goal.

The first step is to ensure an organisation has strong cyber hygiene around endpoints and this must be a top priority. Devices must be kept up to date and security protocols must be continuously refreshed, while access must be regularly and routinely monitored to keep sensitive data safe.

Looking at research by Absolute Software, we see that nearly one in five (18 per cent) healthcare devices has more than 500 instances of sensitive data being stored, such as personal health information. The research also highlights that healthcare organisations have an average patch age of 57 days for commonly used Windows devices, meaning they are almost 2 months behind on patching.

When not updated correctly, holes in systems applications can exist and this acts as a common route in for cyber criminals. When looking at the number of devices used in healthcare, this is not an easy task, however, devices contain high levels of sensitive data so this should be imperative.

Systems must also be accessed securely, and records must be continuously monitored, allowing security teams to pinpoint suspicious behaviour to act accordingly. Without the right technology to support doing so, this can be a hefty job for IT teams.

A resilient zero-trust approach

The difficulties in keeping healthcare data secure, from eco-system complexities to the vast number of devices at play, makes cyber security an increasingly hard task to navigate. As cyber criminals zone in on entry points and weaknesses, strategies must be enhanced with technology.

Technology exists that can now not only reduce the risk of an attack but can enable the ability to react almost instantly if one was to occur, boosting protection by providing visibility, control and self-healing capabilities across endpoints and networks.

By providing visibility, devices can be automatically tracked, and applications can be monitored to ensure each end point is kept in good health. Risks can be continuously assessed, without the constant stress on IT teams to ensure they are monitoring device health, access and the overall cyber landscape of their organisation, at all times.

Self-healing technologies can automatically push updates and repair critical controls if this is required. Technology can provide a more instant and reliable response, offering an efficient and improved approach to cyber security.

The healthcare system is under attack and organisations must understand the vital need for improved, resilient cyber strategies capable of keeping themselves, their reputation and their patients’ data safe.